We aren’t at full peak for the off-season yet, but this week’s General Manager meetings certainly sparked some rumors. Unsurprisingly, Jon Morosi suggested that the Cardinals were engaging on relievers, while Derrick Goold provided comments from John Mozeliak implying that they’re looking for a bat in the corner infield. Ken Rosenthal echoed those comments while simultaneously implying they “are not as interested in Harper as those on the outside want them to be.” The good thing about this off-season in St. Louis is that they aren’t boxed in to trying to upgrade any one specific position. It’s such a robust market that the Cardinals could reasonably focus on some combination of four positions with varying degrees of dollars committed to improvement. There appears to be five routes they can take. Let’s explore.
Before going further, you’re going to see a lot of tables. In each table, you’ll see a Steamer Wins Above Replacement (WAR) projection for each player. You can find that info on Fangraphs, here. Since the Cardinals appear to be hell-bent on adding a left-handed bat, I’ve added an asterisk to lefty hitters and two for switch hitters.
You will also see a projected contract. That figure is the median crowdsource estimate provided by Fangraphs readers for each of the top 50 available free agents. It’s a starting place, and you can admittedly never know where a free agent cycle will take a player’s contract. All the same, that figure seems like as good a starting place as any.
Route #1: Go Big in the Outfield
Big Ticket Outfield Options
There are really only two options here, and both carry risk. Of course, every free agent carries risk, but not all of them have Pollock’s injury history or Harper’s salary commitment. The logic here is obvious, but I’ll expound more. The Cardinals will almost certainly enter 2019 with Harrison Bader and Marcell Ozuna occupying two outfield slots. The third slot, rightfield, was the team’s biggest weakness last year. Their 1.0 fWAR from rightfielders was 24th in baseball. Any good will generated by José Martinez at the plate was torpedoed by his glove. Combined with Dexter Fowler’s disastrous season, it is their biggest positional weakness without a doubt.
Given how dreadful rightfield was last season, it also offers the Cardinals the quickest, most reliable route to improvement on the market. If Harper hits his Steamer projection, it’s nearly a 4-win upgrade. If he can land somewhere between his Steamer projection and his magical 2015 season, it’s an upgrade in the 6-win range. It would transform the team’s on-field prospects overnight. He is a generational talent. Pursuing Harper is as much of a no-brainer in this market as imaginable for the Cardinals.
That’s not to say they’ll sign him. Crazy things happen all the time in free agency. However, with the usual off-season bullies (the Red Sox, Cubs, Yankees) likely to sit this one out, it’s a unique opportunity for the Cardinals. As we’ve seen time and again and as the front office is aware, these chances don’t happen very frequently.
I waffled on including Pollock here and not another area you’ll see later. Eventually, I decided to include him. Like Harper, he demonstrated in 2015 that he’s capable of monster performances. Also like Harper, he hasn’t replicated that performance since then for various reasons. Most of them have been injury-related. He’s very well-rounded, running the bases and defending well to complement his above average performance at the plate. Even if he only plays two-thirds of the season, he represents an upgrade of a few wins. And having some combination of Tyler O’Neill, Dexter Fowler, and Jose Martinez provides the Cardinals with a heck of a safety net.
Route #2: Go Big with a Corner Infielder
Big Ticket Corner Infield Options
The Cardinals fared well at the corners this year, placing top 10 in the league at both third and first base in fWAR. However, part of that production was made possible by Jose Martinez, who may or may not be with the team in 2019. Even then, his glove punted back a chunk of overall value. And short of top-shelf performance, there’s always room to grow.
You could argue that corner infielders represent the best segment of the market, with options both at the top and second tier. The best of the corner infield options have collectively amassed 14 All-Star appearances and eight top-5 MVP vote seasons. It’s not so much that the Cardinals need to upgrade at the corners as it is that the market allows them to be opportunistic there.
Machado is included in name only. For whatever reason, multiple St. Louis writers have downplayed any notion that the Cardinals would pursue him and I’m inclined to take them at their word. Donaldson, on the other hand, has been a rumored target for years. His injury-riddled 2018 will suppress his overall contract and the length of commitment. He’s a former MVP with the potential to play at a near MVP level in 2019, minus natural degradation from age. Most importantly, he offers all of that at a bargain. It’s precisely the type of deal the Cardinals like to make.
Goldschmidt checks some of the same boxes for the Cardinals. His contract has just one year remaining, and he turns out .380+ wOBA seasons in his sleep. His defense leaves a little to be desired but he’s an effective baserunner and a very effective overall player. The lack of contract beyond 2019 means the asking price will be greatly diminished if Arizona puts him on the market. The caveat, as Tanner Puckett wrote yesterday, is that there’s a good chance Goldschmidt isn’t the Arizona corner infielder the Cardinals would pursue.
Either Donaldson or Goldschmidt would represent major upgrades. Donaldson in particular would be an effective second option, and a good fit for the franchise, should the Harper sweepstakes escape the Cardinals.
Route #3: Go Big with a Reliever
|Player||Position||Steamer FIP||Proj. Contract|
|Player||Position||Steamer FIP||Proj. Contract|
First, you’ll note that I’ve included Steamer FIP instead of WAR since wins above replacement are fairly useless for relievers. Second, I’ve included a lot of names, many which don’t qualify as “going big.” The idea here is that, theoretically, the Cardinals could throw lots of money at multiple options, piecing together two or three of these players to revamp the bullpen. In other words, it’s the same plan the Rockies executed 12 months ago.
I am absolutely in Ben Godar’s camp. Do not spend money on relief pitching. However, there’s a decent chance they’re going to sign at least one of these guys, and I don’t inherently mind a gamble so long as it doesn’t prohibit other moves. By reputation, this is the best batch of relievers to hit the market in quite some time. The problem is that if you pay Miller, Britton, Kimbrel, or even Soria, you’re liable to pay 2016 prices for the 2018 product. Miller and Britton especially have peripherals doing ugly things- falling swinging strike rates, increased contact rates, ballooning walk rates and the like. Kimbrel is in a little bit of the same boat, but his slide in 2018 could be part of what’s becoming a bit of an even year tradition.
Of this group, I find Adam Ottavino the most appealing. Nick Groke wrote a great article for The Athletic this week about Ottavino. The gist of it is that Ottavino always had decent stuff, but the results didn’t match until he unlocked the magical world of tunneling. He only just now started to click. Buying Ottavino now might be akin to buying Andrew Miller circa 2014.
Jeurys Familia is another interesting choice. In 2018, six pitchers threw 96+ mph sinkers as 25% or more of their repertoire. Two of them are already members of the bullpen- Jordan Hicks and Dakota Hudson. Adding Familia would give them a third. They could create some kind of Duncanstein’s Monster back end of the bullpen, shoving high octane sinker after high octane sinker down the opposition’s throat. It’s a fun thought. But again... Do not spend money on relief pitching.
Route #4: Starting Pitching
Big Ticket Starting Pitcher Options
Like the corner infield situation, the Cardinals don’t need to add a big ticket starting pitcher. However, the market is so dense with good options that they could take advantage of it. The question becomes just how much they want to add someone from this group. As it is, they have Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, John Gant, Austin Gomber, Luke Weaver, Adam Wainwright, and Daniel Poncedeleon as options for next season. Alex Reyes might also be part of the equation, and they could- if they so desired- give Dakota Hudson a shot. So why would they add a starter?
First of all, adding one of the above free agent pitchers would free them to use the back half of their starting pitching list on the trade market to address other needs. Better yet, they could use many of those secondary players on their current staff in the bullpen. Second, in a world where bullpenning is becoming more prevalent, it’s helpful to have guys like Eovaldi and Morton who can mow through 20-24 hitters at a time. And finally, many of these pitchers beef up the Cardinals’ ability to induce swings and misses.
Two pitchers in particular stand out. Corbin just broke out in a big way. Much like Ottavino, it feels like buying Corbin now would be acquiring a very good pitcher just before they shift to multiple years of dominance. The other is James Paxton, whose situation feels a lot like Chris Sale’s before 2017. He’s older than Sale was, and doesn’t quite match what Sale was before the trade, but he has been a lefty monster playing for a bottom division team. Since 2016, Max Scherzer has the 6th best FIP in baseball. Fifth? James Paxton.
The trouble with both Paxton and Corbin is durability. Further complicating the Paxton situation, the Mariners might not even make him available. If they do, they will surely want a colossal package in return for his last two cost-controlled seasons. He’s going to be worth it for someone. If Harper, Donaldson, and Goldschmidt fall through, Paxton (or Corbin) make for high-impact options.
Route #5: The Patchwork Quilt
This option would be to load up on as much depth as they want. Or if you’d rather, you may also think of this group of players- and half of the reliever list from option 3- as secondary moves for a bigger move. Since the Baron mentioned Haniger earlier this week and Tanner Puckett mentioned Lamb, I’ve included both of them as potential trade candidates. Most of these players are fine in a vacuum, but it’s hard to see how they move the needle for the Cardinals. Gonzalez could be a way for them to replace Gyorko if it behooves them in some way to trade him. Ryu could be amazing but can’t stay healthy, which is also the trouble with Brantley. Lamb is intriguing because he fills a very specific need (left-handed power) at a buy low price, but a move like that is best served as a complimentary piece.
There are a few players I could have included but ultimately decided not to because they seemed like poor fits for the Cardinals. Mike Moustakas, Trevor Cahill, Kelvin Herrera, and Andrew McCutchen all come to mind as players who are potentially useful to someone, but it’s hard to see it happening in St. Louis.
As I said earlier in the off-season, this is a dense market, one that gives the Cardinals multiple ways to enhance themselves. Most notably, it gives them a shot at star quality performers and a few legitimate superstars.
Brace yourself. Regardless of which route they go, it’s about to get fun.